The worst epidemic that Seville ever suffered was in 1649, the beginning of a long outbreak of plague, in what appear to have been its bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic forms. The city and the surrounding areas lost between a quarter and half of their inhabitants – estimates range from 60 000 to 150 000 – and economic and demographic recovery took at least a century. Among many other illustrious dead were the painter Zurbarán and the great sculptor, Martinez Montañés; Murillo survived, but his art was deeply marked by the experience.
There are several contemporary accounts of this plague. The following extracts are taken from an anonymous report, which gives a great deal of information on the part played by the authorities, but especially the church, the religious orders and the confraternities. It describes both their efforts to appease the Deity, since it was considered beyond doubt that the plague was the direct consequence of sin, and the practical measures taken to relieve the sick.
The author, whose work is dated December 7th, 1649, describes the setting up of plague hospitals, the main one being in the Hospital de la Sangre, now known as Cinco Llagas and the seat of the Andalusian Parliament; the burial grounds and the great processions with two of Seville’s most powerful images: the Virgen de los Reyes and Cristo de San Agustín. The latter’s procession took place on July 2nd and, from that moment, according to the chroniclers, the plague began to abate. The original image was destroyed in the Civil War in 1936, but official homage is still paid in gratitude on July 2nd each year.
The writer also pays touching tribute, by name, to many of the Sevillians, religious and lay, who collaborated in maintaining the city during the Plague, whether by bringing the Sacrament to the dying or giving medical care – most in these two categories died – or by contributing money, carrying the sick to hospital or the dead to burial, burning contaminated clothes and bedding – at the Torre del Oro and elsewhere – and ensuring the provisioning of the city, in so far as possible.
The most dire misfortune, the most grievous events, a story most full of wretchedness, the despair of a terrible punishment filled with strange happenings, the most severe chastisement, with the greatest occasions for devotion ever recorded by the pen. Behold the sword of the just God stained with men without number. Behold Nineveh, the desolate; Jerusalem, reduced to nothing; and finally, from the map of pomp and splendour, the Christian Babylon has been almost annihilated – Seville destroyed by the epidemic which she has suffered in the year 1649……
Let us begin, then, by tracing the steps by which this grievous plague developed. As I say, the plague hid itself throughout Lent and then when the river overflowed its banks and necessities were lacking, many people died because they had no food. This scourge of hunger increased greatly and the state of the disaster could well be measured, for an egg – this is something really unbelievable – sold for twelve quarters and a chicken for four pieces of eight of silver……Whole neighbourhoods were flooded, especially the Alameda, so that it was necessary to move about by boat….
The plague was commonly said to have been brought to Triana by some gypsies with clothing* from Cadiz, but it is not for me to establish whether this being the place is a legitimate conclusion and well-founded. They all died and those of the house that concealed them paid for their wicked greed with their lives. This part of the city became infected and from there the spark flew to the heart of Seville and, finding plenty to feed its rage, the violence of its fury increased, so that the disaster could no longer be hidden…..
The Hospital [de la Sangre] was organized in such a way that, there were distributed among the 18 new wards, where there had never been patients before, 300 sick in some, in others 200 and in others 50, depending on the capacity of each, men and women being separated. Supplies and provisions, medicines and everything that was needed both for the sick and for the healthy who cared for them were kept in rooms well away for the area of contagion and were handed out in turn…..
There were three convalescent hospitals, one for women in the Hospital de San Lazaro, where there were normally 600 recuperating and two others for men, each with a capacity of 300; these were known one as S.Sebastian and the other as San Miguel…..
The fact is well known and I cannot deny my admiration as a just tribute to the pious generosity of the people of Seville. Scarcely had the plague revealed its face when Catholic liberality competed with the ardent charity of the noble citizens, who laboured most stubbornly. One man gave 12 beds for the sick ward, together with 600 ducats, and maintained them throughout the plague. The Illustrious Brothers of the House of Mercy gave 50 beds, with everything needful for them, and similarly maintained them until the Hospital closed and, not stopping there, they provided 1000 sets of clothes for the convalescent. Others, even if they could not imitate this level of open-handedness, moved by generous compassion, gave 20 beds, others eight, others four, others one, all lamenting that their wealth and possibilities did not match their desire to help……
Every day, on the steps [of the churches], there would be 200 and sometimes as many as 300 bodies and in the Church of El Salvador, there were usually a hundred…. And throughout the city, neither in the churches, nor in the cemeteries, was there a handbreadth of space unoccupied.
The unbearable stench led to the churches being closed and the Blessed Sacrament carried to some suitable place or nearby monastery. For the lack of anywhere to bury the dead, who were dying so fast and, in such numbers, the city authorities ordered that six enormous cemeteries should be created in different parts of town and that they should be duly consecrated…..
They were as follows: one above Colon, outside the Puerta Real; Another in the Alamilla, outside the Puerta de la Barqueta; another outside the Puerta de Macarena; another outside the Puerta de Triana, beside the Convent of N. Señora del Populo; another outside the Puerta del Ossario and another, which was as large as all the others put together, in San Sebastian**, beyond the Puerta de Xerez…..
Of the vast number of dead, I will repeat that which Marcus Aurelius said of another plague which Italy suffered in his day, as is recorded in the histories: that it was easier to count those who remained alive than to describe the number of the dead. The most certain opinion is that there 200 000 dead and in Seville alone 150 000 and this is confirmed by many doctors who followed the flight from the contagion. Great numbers of people left the city and fled to the countryside or their estates, so much so that the Sierra Morena became almost populated…
And so there was a heart-breaking lack of people left in the city and in the streets that usually served for the populace’s traffic and trade, not so much as a single person was to be seen. There was only a great quantity of clothes and things which the neighbours had thrown away. The few who were out and about showed in their faces the horror of death. It was mainly women of good family who were in the streets by day and by night, since the rest of the household was dead, seeking medicines, doctors or apothecaries for their husbands and children. But it was difficult to obtain any help in their search, for as regards medicines, the apothecaries were mostly dead, and although numerous people sought their aid, only twelve doctors were still alive and even fewer surgeons….
The quantity of goods that have been burned is immense: linens, precious paintings, delicate fabrics, cloths, hangings, gold, silver, silks and other jewels that pay homage, as it were, to the home; something indescribable and with a value to match the Indies. In this way and through this diligence, they purified the houses and made many vast bonfires, and in the streets, as in the houses, with cypress, laurel and rosemary and other scented herbs, they did much to protect the common health.
*The transmission of the plague in used clothes is mentioned over and over again in contemporary sources, both European and Middle Eastern, although the specific association with fleas was not known. Since the trade in used clothing was largely the prerogative of the Jewish community and of gypsies, this was one reason why they were so often accused of spreading the plague. Another source suggests that these clothes came to Cadiz from Algeria. A century later Miss Tully (see earlier post) is much concerned that the Jewish community in Tripoli were collecting and sending large quantities of clothing from plague-stricken households to Europe and tries to send a warning that they should on no account be accepted.
** All these places are still recognisable, although the gates were unfortunately torn down in the 19th c. Prado San Sebastian is now one of the bus stations of Seville and until 1972 was the site of the famous April Fair.
The text has been edited by Francisco Morales Padron in Memorias de Sevilla , but unfortunately I had no access to a copy and this rather rough translation is taken from the scan of the original publication available at www.fama2.us.es